“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” ~Matthew 5:3-12
The Beatitudes: Historical Context
During the time of Christ (~4-37 A.D.), the prophet of Christian text, the majority of the world’s population was spread across Europe, Northern Africa and Asia. Large monotheistic cultures were limited to Judaism, which often alienated Hebrews from other cultures who were polytheistic in spiritual beliefs. At the time, the Roman Empire dominated much of Southern Europe and Northern Africa, including Judea, an independent Jewish kingdom that lay between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan. Due to the spread of Jews to Rome, Emperor Julius Caesar would put laws in place that protected Jewish worship in the city, laws which were applied throughout the empire (Duling, 1982). While the Roman conquerors did place restrictions on the practice of Judaism, the religion was generally respected with limited exceptions. Jews were also required to follow the Roman practices. However, Roman governing in the territory was inefficient at best, which would eventually spring a mid-century revolt among the Hebrews. At the time of Jesus’ sermon, tensions between the Romans and Jews were moderate and can be seen in the first 5 texts of the New Testament of the Bible.
The timeline of Jesus’ life as suggested in the Bible places his “Sermon on the Mount” sometime after May in 29 AD. Nearing the time of the sermon, the prophet had selected his twelve disciples, who followed him as he traveled across what is now known as Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. The sermon took place on a hillside in Capernaum, a city on the banks of the Sea of Galilee in present day Israel. At this point in Jesus’ three year tour, the prophet had performed over 30 noted acts of teaching, healing and preaching (Duling, 1982). In similar fashion to the prophet Moses, who is estimated to have received the commandments of the Hebrew God Yahweh 12 centuries before Jesus’ birth, Jesus instructed a large crowd of people on the tenants of Christian living. Within these tenants were the Beatitudes- eight virtuous ways of life that were looked favorably upon by Jesus and Yahweh. The Beatitudes marked a significant shift in Hebrew law; where before focus in the laws of the religion was placed on the condemnation followers of Hebrew law would experience if they strayed from the path directed by Yahweh, the Beatitudes focused on the supernatural commendation followers would experience if they stayed on the path defined by Jesus. Historians note a softening of the perception of Yahweh after the birth of Christ. Whereas before, the deity commanded his followers with fear, post-Christ Yahweh encouraged compassion and mercy in his followers.
The Beatitudes, like many of the accounts of the actions of Jesus in biblical texts, are recorded twice in the Bible. They are first introduced in the book of Matthew. It is disputed among scholars whether Matthew the author of the text was indeed the Matthew the apostle of Jesus described in other sections of the Bible; however the text is still considered the oldest of the accounts of Jesus placed in the Bible, and there is a notable amount of evidence to assert that the two were one in the same. Under that pretense, Matthew the author and apostle was a tax collector who was commanded by Jesus to follow the Christ on his journey. During the time, tax collectors were reviled for their role in taking money. Moreover, many of the tax collectors in the Bible were portrayed as motivated by greed or other self-serving purposes, and were therefore viewed with disdain. This follows a trend throughout Judaism and Christianity – the calling of the lowest of society to do the work of Yahweh and Jesus. Matthew is attributed with collecting the speeches of Jesus and organizing them; it is believed that these texts were later used by the New Testament author Luke, who also records the Beatitudes in his text (Turner, 1992).
The Beatitudes continue a theme within Jesus’s sermons where he makes a call to his followers to observe and act as those considered to be the lower members of society. The weak, the figurative poor, the meek, the persecuted, those isolated for their convictions- all of these were uplifted in Jesus’ speech as the models to which the rest of his followers should conform. While the blessings received by the groups listed differ in nuance, within his sermon is his continued promise of life beyond the physical realm in which those who have suffered on earth can flourish and find peace for an eternity. It can be asserted that Jesus opened his sermon with these blessings to take hold of the attention of his listeners and to set the tone for what is to follow- the commands he has for his followers (Turner, 1992). These commands varied drastically from the laws of Judaism, where reprimand and punishment were emphasized. It can also be asserted that the Beatitudes were a method of foretelling what was to come for his followers, particularly in the form of persecution. It can be argued that part of the influence for the last Beatitude came from the experience Jesus had with the loss of his cousin John the Baptist, a prophet who had baptized Jesus and had been beheaded for his devotion to Jesus sometime before the sermon. The connection between Jesus and John the Baptist within the texts is great- John prophesied the work to be done by Jesus – Jesus’ respect and admiration of John the Baptist’s work is noted throughout the first 5 texts of the New Testament. It is therefore not a leap to believe the influence existed.
The “Sermon on the Mount” serves as one of the most widely studied text of the Christian religion. It clearly defines Jesus’ mission and the shift in values he represented, and therefore has great value to the faith. While the Beatitudes do not directly command the behaviors listed, they do encourage them, a method of teaching widely used by Jesus throughout his 3 year tour. It can be asserted that the Beatitudes provide the foundation from which the entire faith was built- a list of what Christians should do, rather than what they should not. This shift would eventually cause a rift in Judaism, which was exacerbated when the religion was embraced by the Roman Empire. The Beatitudes serve as an excellent tool for comparison of the two faiths, and is often used by scholars for just that purpose. Though the text is ancient in origins, it serves the role of providing a method by which contemporary speeches and sermons can be structured, and demonstrates the power of the spoken and written word.
The Beatitudes: Literary Analysis and Reflection
While many of the writers within the Bible dedicate their passages to explaining the will of Yahweh, supreme deity within the text, some writers, like Matthew, take a historical approach to the religion, accounting the laws written in the text through actions of the many characters that shaped Christianity. Matthew’s work document the life of Jesus in biographical form, with very little analysis offered. Most of the Book of Matthew has descriptions of different significant events in Jesus’s life, as well as excerpts from his speeches, including the Sermon on the Mount, from which the Beatitudes are taken. Within the Beatitudes, themes of love, mercy and the triumph of the good over evil are portrayed as prophesies of the future in efforts to offer the reader downtrodden by the circumstances beyond the control hope that God will overcome the adversity seen in their lives. Modern applications of the Beatitudes can be seen in their indirect reference to the current socioeconomic state of the US.
In his book, Matthew accounts both the lineage and works of Jesus as part of a historical perspective on Christianity. Matthew takes both a biographical and mythological approach to this account by chronicling Jesus’s life as a series of divinely inspired acts and prophetic speeches. At the time of the Beatitudes, Jesus was nearing the end of his life and would soon be crucified by the very culture that would later bring Christianity into international prominence. This foreshadowed death sparks a series of prophetic speeches a genre seen throughout the first five books of the New Testament of the bible often associated with epitome, an instructional genre dedicated to teachers of the Bible in which Jesus tells gathered groups of the times to come once his life ends (Zamfir, 2007). While much of Matthew’s texts focus on the superhuman feats accomplished by Jesus, it is the impact and implications of Jesus’s prophetic speeches like the Beatitudes that allow the Book of Matthew to stand apart from others.
As with many of Jesus’s prophetic speeches, the Beatitudes carry within them a theme of persecuted and oppressed good overcoming rampant evil with endurance. Vulnerability, which is often portrayed in the secular world as a weakness which causes those who possess it to ultimately fail, is found to be paradoxically triumphant over the weight of the circumstances in which it can be found, and an underlying theme of persistence in spite of circumstance can be felt within the text. Within this speech, Jesus provides particular detail about those persecuted because of their beliefs in him and Christianity as a whole. It can be asserted that in this section of the speech, Jesus alludes to and foreshadows the persecution of past and future followers respectively, suggesting that the path through Christianity includes persecution from non-believers (Turner, 1992). The prophesies Jesus speaks on rely on hope and enduring faith as part of their implied message- those who believe and work toward or are afflicted by these states of vulnerability will, in due time, receive their reward which exists outside of this world.
While no specific characters are named, character types are found throughout the passage. These characters have come to some sort of crossroads within their lives that employs them to be humbled, by choice or circumstances, which allows them to be open to the promises and gifts of Yahweh. It should be noted that it is implied that the choices and circumstances addressed by Jesus within the Beatitudes are difficult ones that are often avoided because of the varying levels of discomfort they give the individual (Zamfir, 2007). It should also be noted that the characters identified in Jesus’s speech are somehow connected to him in thought, word or deed, which further supports the perception of the speech to be one which, in its subtext, prepares Jesus’ followers for the persecution and subsequent rewards of their faith in him.
The Beatitudes provide comfort to those disillusioned with their own diligence to be of moral fiber and good judgment. The scripture is often used as an example of the will of Yahweh being more powerful than the physical, spiritual and emotional destruction his followers experience in this world (Turner, 1992). The text is also a crux for Christian’s looking for hope in times of dire and uncontrollable circumstances. The most recent collapse of the economy has increased the vulnerability of many individuals suffering from the greed and selfishness of others. The Beatitudes also provide motivation for action in time of distress that is selfless. Reflections of this can be seen in the ways in which organization have bonded together to strengthen fights for causes that encourage equality and mercy.
It is with great ease that the majority of people slip into self-pity and denial of their own enduring spirit. Texts such as the Beatitudes provide even the secular reader a context to perceive their life and the implication that something greater than themselves will reward the work put in during times of strife to better oneself and the lives of those around oneself. For the author, the Beatitudes provide a measure of comfort against the pain of being disadvantaged. It allows for hope to be built firmly in faith with tangible promises of intangible rewards. While it is unlikely for society as a whole to be meek, merciful, righteous or persecuted, we as individuals have all experienced the aforementioned in some form or another with wavering hope as to whether or not the storm that has created this emotional state will pass. The Beatitudes provide resolve within its believers, to do in spite of with faith that there is a greater reward.
The Beatitudes: The World in Front of the Text
At the time of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, in which the Beatitudes are included, there was a continual atmosphere of tension and fear. While the presence of Jesus brought comfort to those who believed in his gospel, disbelievers were shifting toward violence beyond verbal abuse in response to his prophetic claims and restructuring of the currently dominant religious tenants. Jesus uses the Beatitudes to appeal to their underlying morality, highlighting the most difficult aspects of their beliefs as virtuousness to be rewarded on a higher plain. Though the Beatitudes are literally spoken toward a specific audience, their universal nature transcends specificities, appealing instead to the attitudes and thought processes that shape Christianity. For this reason, the interpretations of the text also follow a more universal pattern; while they can be applied to time-specific circumstances, their universality allow them to be applicable regardless of time or place. In contemporary applications, a connection can be drawn between the meaning of the text and its ability to speak to the universal nature of the human condition.
The care of the indigent by the community was a highly regarded tenant within most Mediterranean cultures during the time of Jesus. Research conducted by McCown (1927) suggests that this tenant reached through the aristocracy of the time, as noted by the numerous proclamations of works done for the poor found in the tombs of leaders from Egypt. It was therefore not a new concept that the indigent of society should be helped. Jesus’s sermon on the Beatitudes would then more likely be seen as an extension of the security the society itself sought to extend. Jesus’s goes in depth about the types of spiritual indigence experienced by his followers and the help, or blessings, that were to come for those in need who believed. The imagery would align with the experiences of the people of the time; it was the duty of the leaders to ensure the welfare of their citizens, so it would therefore be relatively easy to fathom a leader of spirituality extending this same benefit. It can be asserted that this sermon would be perceived more as a political speech assuring followers what was to come under Jesus’s leadership. However, the Beatitudes also speak to each follower’s individual struggles with spirituality, specifically the unique circumstances that test their faith. Because these circumstances were not limited to specific socioeconomic conditions, they were relatable to all who listened and who were being shaken for their belief in the new religion.
Contemporary times sees us in a place similar to those experienced by Jesus’s original audience. There is a great deal of tension within the world as it becomes increasingly aware of the happenings within it. Christianity is again at a struggling point in which a great deal of doubt has been cast on believers. However, contemporary views of Jesus place great emphasis on Jesus as a healer rather than a leader, lending current audiences to view the Beatitudes less as a political speech for following Christianity and more as a promise to be fulfilled for a weary world. While before Christianity was establishing its grip within the world, Christianity now struggles to maintain it. Still, as an individual experience, the perceptions of the Beatitudes have not changed. They still provide comfort for readers in doubt and struggling in their beliefs, allowing them to believe that their reward, or rather relief, is found in the blessings, or healings, given by Jesus.
It can be asserted that Christianity is heading toward a new valley, yet one not unlike those seen before. The philosophies within the Beatitudes seem to predict a continual struggle between the believer and their environment, which has been proven by time’s treatment of the religion. While the religion itself is evolving, certain foundational truths such as the Beatitudes find themselves still firmly positioned and applicable, demonstrating their universal nature. Moreover, these enduring truths allow the religion to progress in spite of adversities posed by those both outside of and inside of the religion. The Beatitudes, then, are one of the most significant passages of the religion, and will continue to demonstrate their resilience in the dynamic nature of Christianity.
Duling, D. (1982) The new testament: An introduction (4th ed.). San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 4-35
McCown, C. C. (1927). The beatitudes in the light of ancient ideals. Journal of Biblical Literature, 46(1/2), 50-61.
Turner, D. L. (1992). Whom does god approve? The context, structure, purpose, and exegesis of matthew’s beatitudes. Criswell Theological Review,6(1), 29-42.
Zamfir, K. (2007). Who are the blessed? Reflections on the relecture of the beatitiudes in the new testament and the apocrypha. Sacra Scripta 5(1): 76-108